Thursday, July 26, 2012

AI, Sci-Fi and Silicon

Fairly recently my buddy and I got into a discussion regarding the future of computing; specifically, Artificial Intelligence (AI). Having grown up with television shows such as (classic) “Star Trek”, I have been amazed at how reality has actually surpassed our fictional imagination regarding computer capabilities. The cell phones we routinely carry with us today far surpass the computational power of the Space Shuttle. But are we on a pathway to someday creating a real “Lt. Cmdr. Data”? Well…

The silicon micro chip and modern science fiction has suggested, perhaps somewhat mythically, that future AI might manifest itself as some type of Silicon Life Form. Unfortunately, as chemists point out, silicon as a basis for a living organism has some major drawbacks compared to carbon. Though silicon has the ability to bond with other atoms, such molecules are relatively unstable. As a result the largest silicon compound ever observed was limited to only six silicon atoms. Carbon, on the other hand, is able to produce long chains of hundreds of thousands of atoms. Large complex chains of carbon atoms have the ability to form “left-handed” versions, which build amino acids, and proteins, and “right-handed” versions which form sugars. Carbon dioxide is a gas which dissolves easily in water, whereas Silicon dioxide is a solid.

Ok, so perhaps then we could conclude that a silicon life form might exist less as a carbon-based “living” organism and instead more like a super sophisticated robot. After all computing technology is increasing inversely to size and energy requirements. Well, not so much – silicon as a substrate is soon to reach its limits of it’s capability as a substrate for micro-processing. Moore’s Law has postulated that we could expect the number of transistors on a substrate to double every couple of years. That has happened to the point where now close to 200 million transistors can be placed on a single microchip resulting in smaller processors requiring less energy. But as size drops down to the 32 to 22 nanometer range, as it will within the next two decades, quantum effects and manufacturing technology limitations hit their bottom limit. For the trend of Moore’s law to continue, silicon must be abandoned.

It is true that silicon based computing has taken us very far. Earlier this year IBM’s Watson, a remarkable computer that demonstrated the ability to learn and reason, had its debut competing against two of the smartest human contestants ever to appear on the TV game show “Jeopardy”. But as sophisticated as was Watson, it was “tasked” with sole purpose of competing on a game show. Without being given a question to ponder, Watson is essentially inert – not capable of creativity, imagination or any of the other emotionally driven neural processes that make the human brain such a powerful generator of abstract ‘thought’. A computer with similar capabilities of the human brain would require a hydro dam amount of electrical energy consumption to even remotely emulate.

What works better than silicon, then? It turns out – Carbon; more specifically the carbon molecules that form the DNA molecule. DNA may be the future of computing technology that takes us beyond the limits of Moore’s Law. DNA is abundant and cheap, self replicating, consumes low amounts of energy; remarkable amounts of data can be processed in amazingly small amounts of physical space.

Though they are still in their infancy, DNA computers have been around since 1994 and have been used to solve some complex mathematical problems. These natural supercomputers already exist in our bodies; research into DNA computing promises to help us unravel both the complexity of the human brain as well as usher us into the newest realm of computer technology. With the epitaph of silicon looming on the horizon, science and industry is already working to build a more compact, efficient and accurate computer which replaces the need for electrical switching with chemical bonding.

But don’t sell your Intel stock just yet.
References and further reading:

Could Life be based on Silicon rather than Carbon?, NASA Astrobiology Institute

Where Is My Silicon-Based Life? Ask a Biogeek

Limitation Of Silicon Based Computation And Future Prospects, Shazia Hassan, Department of Computer science, The Islamia University of Bahawalpur, Punjab, Pakistan

Silicon shrinking will end about 2020, what will replace it?, Geek.Com

Is DNA Surpassing Silicon? George Klington Fernandez, St. Eugene University, Zambia

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some (personal) Medical Insurance Facts

While the country is swirling with monumental discussion, facts, statistics, opinions, lies and myths about the medical care and medical insurance issues, I thought I would share some of my personal facts regarding my wife’s and my medical coverage; anecdotal though it may be.

Medical Insurance:
When we retired in 2006, our group (state public employee) medical insurance premium for our joint coverage began billing us $893.76 per month. Prior to retiring our employer paid for this coverage. Today our premium is $1,157.46 – a 29.5% increase in premium costs over 6 years. The current rate of inflation is 2%.

Last year our monthly health care premium actually went down from $1,159.52, to $1,157.45 this year – a $2.07 per-month decrease. However, the plan has changed whereby we now must pay $500 out-of-pocket before anything is covered. So essentially, our medical costs have actually increased 3.5% over last year.

This year, our insurance provider is requiring all customers to participate in a mandatory “Health Engagement Model (HEM) program”. A surcharge (penalty) of $17.50 per person will be added to our monthly premium if we do not comply with the HEM requirements, which consists of watching online training videos. Between my wife and me, we have spent six hours on this process. Emphasis for those of you who decry government interference regarding your health care, note that these are private company hoops we are having to jump through – not government.

Over these six years, our group coverage has forced us to change insurance companies four times. As a result, we have had to change from medical providers and facilities with whom we have established doctor-patient relationships over years. Emphasis again, for those of you who decry government making decisions about your health care, note that these are private companies, making choices for us who we will be allowed to see – not government.

One prescription my wife takes cost $543.78 for a 3-month supply in 2007. This same prescription charges the insurance company $912.58 today. This is a 68% increase in the cost of this drug over five years. Our co-pay for this prescription was $15, it is now $75.
… researchers’ estimate is based on the systematic collection of data directly from the industry and doctors during 2004, which shows the U.S. pharmaceutical industry spent 24.4% of the sales dollar on promotion, versus 13.4% for research and development, as a percentage of US domestic sales of US$235.4 billion. [1]
Dental insurance:
We discontinued dental insurance as the premium amount plus the out-of-pocket costs for non-covered expenses was more than simply paying for services directly.

Final thoughts:
Our medical insurance premium, deductibles and co-pays consume one-third of our disposable income. I often wonder how many Conservative local business owners would much rather I spend that $19,800 a year in their local restaurants and businesses than send this money to out-of-town insurance companies? Multiply my $19,800 by the thousands of people like me – this amounts to millions of dollars denied the local economy.

Consider that for every car you buy, every bag of groceries, every movie ticket, every magazine, every gallon of gasoline… the cost of employee medical care premiums is factored into the price of what we pay for those goods and services. Why wouldn’t Conservatives rather want to either A) reduce the cost of their goods by that factor and increase sales, or B) pocket the additional profit from the reduced overhead, by having their employee insurance costs picked up by a single payer government plan? A single-payer plan seems like a win-win for every business in the county except medical insurance companies. Our business leaders must be the laughing stock of the remainder of the developed industrial world.

My final thought on the ACA (aka: ObamaCare)
It appears to focus of this law is directed entirely on insurance coverage but little on containing the rise in medical costs and the demise of medical outcomes. But hey… it’s a start.

1. Big Pharma Spends More On Advertising Than ResearchAnd Development, Study Finds,, January 5, 2008.